A Merit-Based Selection Process for the World Bank and IMF? Don't Count on It!

November 4, 2009 5:15 PM

Meeting in London last April, the G-20 leaders declared "that the heads and senior leadership of the international financial institutions [i.e., the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund] should be appointed through an open, transparent, and merit-based selection process ." When you look at the selection processes for other international "top policy positions," however, the record is not inspiring. Indeed it is evident that personal merits alone rarely suffice for any candidate in such races.

In reform discussions concerning international organizations, the process for filling the top management posts often ends up being among the most contentious issues. With the end of the US/EU duopoly on the leadership of the Bretton Woods institutions, this issue seems certain to pop up again. The currently preferred replacement to the overt political appointments of nationals made by the US and EU governments is to instead "let the best candidate win."

Take the post as United Nations secretary general. Here UN member states have over the years actually narrowed the selection criteria. The original UN Charter Article 97 stated that "the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council," and the 1946 UN General Assembly Resolution 11/1 made it clear that the candidate should be a "man of eminence and high attainment" and that the UN Security Council provide the General Assembly with only one candidate for consideration. By giving ultimate say to the General Assembly, these provisions effectively excluded candidates from any of the five permanent Security Council members. From the beginning, the unstated assumption was that the job would go to someone from a different region of the world on a rotating basis.

The General Assembly codified that tradition in 1997 by approving Resolution 51/241 , which stated that "due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality." Thus in 2001 and 2007, only African and Asian candidates respectively were seriously considered for the Secretary General position.

Whatever the merits of excluding the P-5 and rotating among regions for the job, the United Nations now has a situation of finding a successor to Kofi Annan of Africa and Ban Ki Moon of Asia by choosing someone from only a relatively small minority of the world's population. That hardly qualifies for a merit-based selection across the globe.

Or take the European Union. With the Lisbon Treaty finally ratified by all EU member states this week, another selection process for an "international policy job" is unfolding as the two newly created positions of "EU council president" and "EU high representative" become available (in addition to the existing presidency of the European Commission). Again, as initially with the UN secretary general, EU member governments have in the Lisbon Treaty left themselves with maximum discretion over whom to select, as the Lisbon Treaty Article 9B merely states that successful candidates "shall not hold a national office."

True to EU political traditions, however, maximum discretion in selection simply means maximum room for political horse trading. Hence at least seven unofficial selection criteria will play a huge role.

  1. Current Holder or Predecessor: As the recently reappointed president of the European Commission is Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal, no other Portuguese can be considered. The general principle is that no country can hold the same EU post with different candidates twice in a row.
  2. Other International Organization Posts: As Denmark was just given the position for secretary general of NATO, no Danes can be picked either.
  3. Language Proficiency: It is a longstanding tradition that no president of the European Commission could be appointed without a credible command of French. However, as this will be the first selection of new leaders for EU-wide offices since the 2004 expansion with largely non-French speaking Eastern European countries, it is unclear how important this linguistic requirement will be this time around.
  4. Geographic Balance: EU positions, like the UN secretary general position, are guided by regional balance. With a Portuguese Commission president already, it is highly unlikely that any candidate from the Iberian Peninsula will be considered and clearly any candidate from Southern Europe is at a serious disadvantage. Instead the two available jobs will probably be given to one candidate from a northern member state and one candidate from one of the eastern members.
  5. Country Size: As the European Union has expanded with more smaller countries, it is becoming increasingly difficult for candidates from any of four large member states (Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom) to mount a successful candidacy. Similarly to the P-5 exclusion for UN secretary general, a big country candidate (especially from the German-French axis) would be seen as giving a single large member too much influence. At the same time, as the European Union now has three EU-wide top positions, it is—on the other hand—likely that one of these posts will go to a candidate from one of the large member states.
  6. Political Affiliation: By tradition, the president of the European Commission has reflected the dominant political fraction across member states at the time of selection. Therefore, today Commission President Barroso of Portugal is from the center-right. With three jobs to fill, however, consensus-oriented EU leaders seem certain to split the spoils so that the dominant political center-right fraction gets two positions and the centre-left Socialists one.
  7. Gender: Similarly to the UN secretary general's job, no woman has ever held the top job at the European Commission. With three positions at the top of the EU, however, the pressure to fill at least one of them with a woman will be very strong.

While many candidate combinations exist that would fulfill these seven criteria, it is increasingly obvious that any candidate's personal merits is not a major consideration.

Where does all this awkward jockeying and ticket balancing leave future selections for the World Bank and the IMF?

Most international organizations comprising sovereign countries necessarily fall back on "the sum of their members' willingness to participate,” although uniquely the European Union has its own legal foundation and functions through very deep pooling of sovereignty among its member states. In terms of the autonomous policy space to fill and direct political influence available, the posts heading the two major international financial institutions (IFIs) are more like the head of the European Union than secretary general of the United Nations, simply because the head of the European Union commands a budget of more than $100 billion and wields considerable executive power.

Despite the initially lofty proclamations of the G-20, political horse trading over the Bretton Woods positions will be inevitable. Governments are unlikely to issue more precise selection criteria, because they will want to facilitate their political room for maneuver. The history of UN and EU selection processes point to several likely outcomes:

Not All Need Apply: As with the P-5 at the United Nations, some countries nationals will be persona non grata. It is now hard to imagine that any US or EU national (at least from a big EU member) could ever be chosen to head either the World Bank or the IMF again.

Regional Balance: It is likewise inconceivable that the two posts could ever be held simultaneously or consecutively by nationals from the same country or even region. It is further probable that there will be one candidate from a developed nation and one from a developing country in the future. Regional balance means that the immediately prior selection process will inevitably become a dominant factor after the initial appointments. With a global membership like in the United Nations, a regional rotation principle seems likely to emerge.

Gender: With more than one job to fill, the pressure for a woman will be strong. If no woman is chosen the first time around, the pressure will rise exponentially.

Some habits are hard to kick. Despite the G-20's lofty intentions for IFI leadership, the candidates' personal merits will be secondary in an ostensibly merit-based process.